April 27, 2012

The First Natural Gas Vehicles

The First Natural Gas Vehicles

As natural gas vehicles gain more attention in the transportation industry, we’re seeing more examples of cutting-edge technology harnessing the power of this abundantly-available fuel.

But where did the idea of powering a vehicle with natural gas come from? In every successful invention there’s a history of thwarted attempts and modest origins, and natural gas-powered vehicles are no different.

The Origins Natural Gas Vehicles
Natural gas-powered vehicles can be traced back to World War I and World War II, when the shortage of gasoline was felt worldwide. Developed out of necessity, “Gas Bag Vehicles” began to appear in France, Netherlands, Germany and England.

Automobiles, buses and trucks were powered by “town gas” or “street gas,” a by-product of the process of turning coal into cokes (used to make iron), captured in a balloon that was usually carried on the roof of the vehicle.

While today’s natural gas passenger vehicles are quite practical, with advanced technologies that   compress natural gas (CNG) so more fuel can be carried in the tank, the ‘gas bag’ fuel tanks of the past needed to be much larger to house the uncompressed gas. For every one litre of gasoline, about two to three cubic metres of gas was needed, meaning that an extremely large fuel tank was needed for any sort of reasonable range. The solution came in the form of a gas storage bag mounted to the roof rack of the vehicle.

The Dutch old-timer pictured here carried a gas storage bag of 13 cubic metres, an installation that gave it a range of about 50 km (30 miles) at an energy consumption of 13 litres per km (22 mpg).
Buses were best suited for this, and had a full-length gas storage bag on their roofs, sometimes enclosed in a streamlined fairing. Private automobiles, however, had a wooden frame fastened to the vehicle’s roof and the reinforced bumpers. The vehicles were easy to spot and had terrible fuel economy due to the aerodynamics of the balloon-like gas bags.
Because of the visibly exposed gas bag, it was easy to see how much fuel the vehicle had at any given time: the gas bag would be fully inflated at the start of the trip, and it would deflate with every mile that was driven. For all gas bag vehicles, the bag was anchored to the roof using rings and straps. Some gas bag vehicles could operate alternatively on gas or gasoline, switching between the two options from inside the vehicle.
The gas storage bags themselves were made of silk and other fabrics, which were then soaked in rubber. These bags were much cheaper and easier to build than metal tanks, and could be repaired in a similar way to bicycle tires.

Compressed Gas
Although it was technically possible to compress town gas or street gas, it wasn’t done. Carbon monoxide, one of the components of town gas and street gas, disintegrates quickly when compressed, while hydrogen gas, another component, leaks away through steel tanks when it is compressed. What could have been a solution to the large bags would’ve inhibited the fuel from working.

France, the only exception, used gas cylinders during World War Two (picture above), allowing for a smaller fuel tank or a better range. Natural gas was used, which could be compressed without the drawbacks of compressing town gas. However, this turned out to be more expensive and more dangerous.

Gas bag vehicles weren’t without danger. The most obvious was fire, which could cause an explosion. Because of this, people waiting for the bus were encouraged not to smoke! (below)

Bridges and other overhead obstacles were another risk due to the height and fragility of the gas bags. The driver of the vehicle needed to know the exact height of his vehicle and the bridges he planned to drive under.
High speeds were also ill-advised. A speed of more than 50km/h wouldn’t only impact the fuel efficiency, but the fuel tank could also fly off the vehicle. Strong side winds presented similar hazards, and gas bag vehicles were prone to carburator fires, loud bangs and engine damage.

Gas bag buses were still used in China in the 1990s as a cheap public transportation option, particularly in the Sichuan province of China (just south of China's geographical center) where natural gas is a relatively cheap substance.

We’ve come a long way in natural gas transportation technology from these earlier models, but a brief glimpse into the history and ancestry shows us that like most other inventions, NGVs were born from necessity.

More Pictures:

April 23, 2012

Fuel Efficiency: Getting Anxious About Range Anxiety in Light-Duty

We previously blogged about the issue of Range Anxiety in heavy-duty trucking applications, and the reality of range limitations. Expanding on that post, we want to address light-duty applications, particularly in fleet passenger vehicles.

In our initial Range Anxiety post, we mentioned that range is the distance a vehicle can travel before refueling, when it’s carrying a full load of fuel under average conditions. Range anxiety is the fear that a vehicle has insufficient range to reach its destination and would leave the vehicle’s occupants stranded.

Anxiety levels are likely to vary based CNG station density: some parts of North America have very limited CNG availability, so anxiety is understandable. Pakistan, on the other hand, with 61% of the vehicle population running on CNG with bi-fuel capability (IANGV link), must have high CNG station density, and so, less range anxiety issues.

Bi-fuel vehicles such as the Westport powered Volvo V70 (link) and  Ford F-250/F350 (link) have  greatly reduced or eliminated range anxiety, because they can switch to gasoline if the vehicle runs out of CNG. Alan Welch, Westport LD Senior Director, Advanced Technology and Engineering, explains that for bi-fuel vehicles many people find that a CNG range of 250 to 500 km is enough. “Historically, about 70 percent of CNG passenger vehicle sales by Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) in North America were bi-fuel, the remainder being monofuel,”  Alan says.

The Volvo V70, for example, has a minimum range of 250km in city driving, and up to 300km to350km when driving in less congested areas such as highways. The Ford F-250/F-350 powered by the Westport WiNG™ Power System is also bi-fuel, and while the exact range depends on tank size, it’s expected to get between 300km-500km depending on tank size, route or driving patterns (for instance, city driving versus highway driving), and driver behaviour (studies by the DoE show that aggressive drivers easily consume 33 percent more fuel).

Just like heavy-duty and long haul trucking applications, range is greatly affected by factors like weather, terrain, speed, driver habits and load. While these range limitations are controlled by efficient route planning in the heavy-duty applications, the use of bi-fuel vehicles and the ability to switch from CNG to gasoline should reduce the range anxiety in drivers of light-duty vehicles.  

Additional resources/data: 

April 18, 2012

Resource Site Profile – CNG Now

Westport likes to share resources that we think are relevant to our industry, natural gas. As the natural gas industry gathers momentum, more informational and educational resources are developing. CNGNow.com, is one such resource that aims to promote and inform about benefits of “clean, affordable, abundant… natural gas.”.

The site offers information about CNG, industry news and video, which CNG powered vehicles are available where CNG fueling stations can be found in the USA. They’ve produced this interesting info-graphic that we wanted to share:

As the info-graphic explains, natural gas has become increasingly popular for both its economic and environmental benefits. This is encouraging new infrastructure to be created to support the growing demand for these vehicles, but it’s not at full capacity yet.  While the development of CNG stations plays catch-up to the demand for CNG vehicles, CNGnow has created a “CNG fuel finder”smartphone application that allows the user to find the nearest CNG station, check prices, map routes to the stations, and receive the most up-to-date information about CNG fueling stations.

Download their app for iphone or android.

April 13, 2012

Westport at the 2012 Energy Independence Summit

The 2012 Energy Independence Summit, sponsored in part by Westport, was held last month in Washington DC. Organized by Transportation Energy Partners, the event gave Clean Cities coordinators a chance to share best practices and educate federal policy makers about the U.S. Department of Energy’s Clean Cities Program and the need to overcome the barriers to the widespread use of clean vehicles and fuels.

Jonathan Burke, Westport Vice President, Global Market Development, moderated a round table discussion sponsored by Westport: “State of the Clean Fuels & Vehicle Industry: Barriers and Opportunities.” The summit also featured sessions and presentations from  clean transportation experts on:

·         Federal funding and incentives to promote alternative fuels, vehicles and infrastructure
·         Successful alternative fuels and vehicle projects across the country
·         Innovative state and local policies and programs that are advancing markets for cleaner fuels and vehicles

Clean Cities Coordinators and industry partners had a day on Capitol Hill, briefing Congressional leaders about the alternative fuel, advanced vehicle and infrastructure projects as well as other successes achieved with support of government leaders and industry.
According to the Energy Independence Summit website, TEP has been, since 2002, organizing an event in Washington, D.C., that allows Clean Cities representatives to speak with their legislators. This year’s summit provided an opportunity to demonstrate the broad-based grassroots support among business leaders, state and local government officials, and community leaders for clean transportation energy policies that enhance energy security and create new jobs.The summit highlighted the need for the global economy to look at ways to reduce the use of oil as a transportation fuel because of its implications to energy security, climate change and health effects.  The issue of energy security, the reduction of oil imports and the development of alternative domestic sources for energy was a focus of discussions. Incentives (both monetary and non monetary) and policies that promote the use of alternative fuel vehicles are needed to bring certainty to the market and to help transition the market away from oil.    One of the barriers to adoption has been the the higher cost to consumers of alt fuel vehicles, plus anxiety over fuel availability, supply and infrastructure.  
Despite the higher vehicle prices, the lower cost of fuels such as natural gas make the case for alt fuels, especially in the trucking sector, more compelling.  Jim Bruce from UPS highlighted that by reducing the costs in trucking, it reduces the costs of goods and is good for the economy.

This year’s event was a great success in educating policy makers and politicians about the importance of promoting alternative fuels and vehicles for the long term growth of the economy, promoting energy security and petroleum reduction programs, and providing  lower GHG alternatives to traditional fuels.

April 5, 2012

Westport Participates in National Petroleum Council Study

In June 2010, Westport was asked by The National Petroleum Council (NPC) to participate in a national transportation energy study.  Dr. Steven Chu, the U.S. Secretary of Energy had asked the NPC to identify what mix of alternative fuels and vehicles could be possible in 2050 to shift the transportation sector towards better reliability, security, independence and lower carbon, along with a 50 percent greenhouse gas emission reduction.  

The NPC is a U.S. federal advisory committee established in 1946 to advise the Secretary of Energy on oil and gas related matters. Since its formation in 1946, the Council has prepared over 200 reports, which deal with virtually every aspect of oil and gas operations.

More than 400 people representing all areas of industry and government have participated in the study to date. Mike Gallagher (Westport Senior Advisor and former President of Westport) recruited and chaired a 60-person natural gas team with representatives from OEMs, major oil and gas companies, fuel supply/demand, academia and non-governmental organizations, and led the draft of a comprehensive chapter addressing the natural gas fuel supply chain and engines/vehicles. Mike sees Westport participation in the study as an excellent opportunity to influence the thinking and policy of the US Administration on transportation alternative fuels and natural gas. An added benefit: “Westport is also gaining visibility with a large array of major oil companies, and other key stakeholders in the US energy system,” he says.

In addition to her role at Westport, Karen Hamberg (Westport Vice President of Sustainable Energy Futures) was seconded to the study as a core member of four teams: i) natural gas, ii) GHG emission reductions, iii) heavy duty economics, and iv) report integration. As the study moves toward completion, she is heavily involved in the report editing team to finalize the remaining chapters.

“The study is greatly raising understanding and credibility of the natural gas transportation industry among a wide array of thought leaders in government, industry, and academia,” Karen says. “There is currently a gap in the literature specific to natural gas for transportation.  The quantitative and analytical phase of the study evaluates how the different fuels and vehicle technology streams would compete and integrate under a range of economic scenarios.  Significant market shares for LD and HD vehicles will further support the economic competitiveness and environmental performance of natural gas vehicles.”

The study is grounded in technology and economics, and has been separated into two phases. In the first phase, each of the five fuel teams (natural gas, electricity, biofuels, hydrogen and liquid hydrocarbons) determined what contribution that particular fuel or vehicle technology could make to the greenhouse gas emissions targets and what economic, technical or regulatory barriers need to be overcome in order to reach those targets.  Phase two was a lengthy analytical process to evaluate how different fuels and technologies would compete and integrate under differing economic scenarios. This resulted in detailed projections of the adoption of new technologies in the transport sector.

April 2, 2012

Impressions of GLOBE2012 from a Westport Energy Analyst

In a recent blog post we mentioned that several Westport employees (Westporters) would be attending the GLOBE2012 conference and contributing their thoughts and impressions to the blog. One of our energy analysts, Ganesh Khanna, a recent graduate of UBC and new employee to Westport offers his reflections on the conference:

In March I had the opportunity to attend the GLOBE sustainability conference held in Vancouver.  As someone who is relatively new to the huge umbrella that is corporate sustainability, I was eager to hear about what other companies were doing and how Westport could learn from them.

This wasn’t my first sustainability conference but it was the first that had a bit of ‘kick’.  Whether it was a banana-outfit-clad activist questioning Dole about their supply chain practices, audience members unconvinced of the progress in sustainable initiatives being made by oil and gas companies, or the backlash on Twitter that Environment Minister Peter Kent caused with his response on withdrawing Canada from the Kyoto Protocol (search #globe2012 to see all the comments). It was apparent that audience members were prepared to hold panelists accountable for their actions.

The conference was titled Building a Sustainable Economy for the 21st Century.  Topics included climate policy and energy efficiency, maintaining an efficient supply chain, sustainable consumption, and water security.  One topic that I felt was clearly missing was the future of transportation.  With rising prices at the pump and people looking for alternative transportation, not to mention the growing demand for cars in developing countries, I expected more discussion around what’s currently happening both locally and globally. Obviously this is a discussion that is directly relevant to our success at Westport and one we would have welcomed, expanding further on CEO David Demers’ participation on one of the panels. The conference was well-run with knowledgeable panelists and (more importantly) an engaged audience. I feel, though, that there was a missed opportunity by GLOBE2012 to fully explore a sustainable economy. Hopefully two years from now we’ll see this as a highlight.